The Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) has written a statement describing a strategic vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism. He envisions a Unitarian Universalism grounded in congregations, while creating a movement outside of the local church. He describes various extra-congregational aspects of our movement, and the fact that many more people identify as Unitarian Universalist than are actually in our churches. Rev. Morales calls for us to become a religious movement.
Many more people identify with a particular religious group without ever being affiliated with a local faith community. Unitarian Universalists are not unique in that. People will identify themselves as Episcopalian, Congregationalist or what have you, without ever darkening the door of a local house of worship—even on Christmas, Easter or high holidays. Many will come to be married or bury a loved one. My guess is that these are people raised in these traditions, who themselves were married by one of their clergy people, who have been to a rite of passage or high holiday service, or who have friends who are involved. The identification is strong enough that they self-report on the census.
Reaching this identified-but-not-affiliated population is a good strategy. Why not reach out to those who already say they are part of us? The Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby has contributed some important work to this idea. The churches’ response to his work in Canada, not surprisingly, has been to strategize how to reach out to those people and draw them into the local congregation.
Coming up with new sites or modes for those (and other) people to affiliate with the movement is also a good if inventive strategy. What those sites or modes turn out to be may or may not work, but it’s well worth a try. The nature of church—of organized religion—is shifting. I am thankful that Rev. Morales envisions the continued central place for congregations and is imagining other experimental forms.
I wonder if what he has in mind are phenomena like the Lucy Stone housing collective here in Boston or A Third Place worshipping community in Turley, Oklahoma. What could a national ecclesial organization do to support or initiate such expressions of religious community?
If Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, then the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is its institutional expression. What is the relationship between movement and institution?
Many of us have long spoken of Unitarian Universalism as a movement, perhaps only to avoid the misnomer “denomination.” We are not a denomination, that is, a sub-sect of a larger religion. Once upon a time, Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations, whatever the Church Universal may have thought of us. There is no larger religion to which Unitarian Universalism now belongs (the way the denominations of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics belong to the religion Christianity, or Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Conservative belong to Judaism). For better or for worse, we have evolved into our own sui generis.
It is not accurate, then, to describe Unitarian Universalism or the UUA as a denomination. Organizationally, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is, well, an association of congregations. What else would it be?
“Movement” harkens us back to when William Ellery Channing and other early US Unitarians were preaching and advocating for a unique liberal Christian perspective within the established churches of the United States. Unitarianism was a liberalizing movement within American Protestantism. It was not even a denomination at first. Responding to Calvinist orthodoxy, proponents of Unitarianism had a distinct theological voice. They were proposing theological alternatives, as were the Universalists (who were more denominationally minded, though not entirely well organized about it). Unitarians and Universalists had theological distinctives that soon began to move through the broader religious culture—the inherent worth of the human person, the benevolence of a loving God, the use of reason in religion, the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, and self-culture being some of the major ones.
What are contemporary Unitarian Universalists proposing that could move through the broader culture? What is our distinctive message, around which we are building movement?
There is a distinction to be made, I believe, between religious movements and their institutional expression. For example, religious feminism is a movement. Arising with the second wave of feminism, religious feminism has questioned (and questions) traditional assumptions about the status of women in organized religion, and with this questioning reformulated religious discourse on God (and the Goddess), gender, the body, and hierarchy with implications for ministry, ecclesiology, liturgy and much more. Religious feminism has been a major movement within Judaism, Christianity and Goddess religion and in each of these contexts is unique, even as each strand shares distinctive values, principles, and insights with the others. Ecclesiastical structures have responded to this movement; women’s ordination to ordered ministry and the rabbinate, inclusive language in liturgy and in scripture, and the dissemination of feminine images of the divine are some of the major ones.
The relationship between an organized religion and religious movement, it seems to me, is one of grassroots momentum and institutional response. How does a religious organization spawn a religious movement? There is no such thing as an Association of Religious Feminism, which is promoting religious feminism. There are, of course, women clergy groups, conferences, publishers and writers, local leaders and scholars who give lectures, workshops, publish books and blogs, and so on. This is the nature of a movement. It is an open field of thinking, writing, talking, organizing and meeting.
Organizations form around religious ideas and movements. I’m thinking, too of the new monastic movement and the emergent church movement. These are two, not unrelated, movements in contemporary US Christianity. A denominational head office did not think these up, then strategically plant and nourish them. They emerged from below, the winds of the zeitgeist delivering pollen from one area of growth to another. The conferences, writers, blogs, and so on both gave rise to and cross-pollinated the essential theological and ecclesiastical ideas of new monasticism and emergent church.
The UUA is the descendent organization that formed around nineteenth-century religious ideas and movements. The purpose of the UUA—as an association of congregations—has been to serve the health of the local church. With a reformulation of the UUA’s purpose, what would its relationship be with other, non-congregational, modes of this “movement”? It seems to me that such an organization would be hard-pressed to initiate something that is actually a religious movement. Unless, perhaps it is responding to or attempting to harness a movement that is already bubbling up. Is that the case, and if so what are this grassroots movement’s features?
Something is missing for me in this picture, and perhaps I am just not seeing it. Should that turn out to be the case, please point me to it: where is the movement on the ground that the UUA will respond to? What are the theological and ecclesiastical distinctives among us today around which a movement is moving?
I like to think one of them is our way of being in relation: covenantal, mutual, democratic (more on this later). I have been thinking that this is best expressed, best lived out and embodied, in a congregation. What other forms can this take? I’m curious and interested in finding out.
Without some sort of distinctive message or proposal (thinking, again, about religious feminism, new monasticism, emergent church) a movement does not move. Without a burning coal at its center, a compelling vision, message, or idea a “movement” will not move.